What is Aging?
The physical signs of aging occur when environmental and congenital influences begin
to break down the body's carefully balanced systems. Skin loses elasticity, corneas
harden, joints stiffen. We have a basic idea as to why these things happen, and
some control over them. Exercise and proper diet can improve joint mobility and flexibility.
Wrinkles and dry skin can be reduced by protecting yourself from the sun. Age-related
eye problems are becoming increasingly treatable with laser surgery. We can replace many
worn-out body parts, from hips to hearts (though the replacements are still largely
inferior to healthy originals; they often need to be replaced several times throughout
a person's lifetime).
If you look at the people around you, however,you are not likely to see a uniform
aging pattern. Some fifty-year-olds look and act thirty, whereas others might be
mistaken for eighty. Though there are a few exceptions (young health nuts who die
of heart attacks, and centenarians whose main diet consisted of coffee and pork rinds),
the general rule is that a healthy diet and level of physical activity make a person
healthier. Lifespan, then, seems to be determined by both lifestyle and genetics. We
can't do much about the genetics yet, but all of us can improve our eating and exercise
habits and therefore our general health. This can only take a person so far, however.
Our bodies maintain themselves via cell division; your systems, for the most part,
are consistently renewing themselves, replacing broken-down old cells with new ones.
It is theorized that our cells are pre-programmed only to divide a limited (but large)
number of times. There are sequences at the ends of chromosomes called telomeres,
that are thought to provide a regulating function during cell division. When the
telomere becomes too short, the cell stops dividing. When the telomeres become
short throughout various bodily systems, we see the results as "aging"; the body
becomes weaker and less resilient, since it is not repairing itself as it should be.
Ack! you might be saying. "These things are killing us!" Au contraire my friend.
This inhibition of cell division actually serves a very useful purpose: it protects us
from cancer. Tumors can be immortal, but who wants to be a tumor? Not me. It seems
that we are either doomed to die from age-related system and organ failure, or of
cancer! Is there no hope for aspiring immortalists? Well, in the future it MIGHT be
possible to stop the telomere activity from helping cancerous cells, while allowing
it to help create fresh, healthy, normal cells. This will be delicate work, and
we certainly cannot do it yet. Our best bet for today is to help protect our cells
from damage: antioxidants such as vitamins C and E could help here, as well as
making sure we avoid excessive sun exposure.
Beware The Fountain of Youth in a Pill
If you do a web search for "anti-aging research" you will come up with thousands
of results. Many of these links lead to pages touting the benefits of some "miracle
substance" that you ingest, while others advertise wrinkle cream and other cosmetics.
Do a search for "life extension", and you will come up with everything from vitamins
to cryonics. The problem is separating the BS from the legitimate science. I have
found that pages that use lots of
LARGE FONT and EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!
and are full of misspellings tend to be less reliable. Life extension, it seems,
is just as susceptible to exaggeration in advertising as penis
Yet as strange as this may sound, there is actually a lot of good, solid scientific
information regarding cryonics
. No human has ever yet been successfully frozen
and then thawed into healthy consciousness, but we certainly have the technology
today to freeze a person. The cryonics FAQ can be found at http://keithlynch.net/cryonet/00/18.html
and is a good read no matter if you think it is legitimate or lunacy. Another promising
life extension possibility is caloric restriction
, which has been shown
to prolong the lives and improve the health of mice and monkeys.
Anything that is actually likely to prolong life or improve health and vitality
into the later years is probably not going to be a "secret herbal formula" guaranteed
to "make you feel 21!!!" It certainly won't be a magnetic bracelet or a special
triangle-shaped charm you wear around your neck, despite what those ads in the tabloids
would like you to believe. Cryonics is complicated and expensive. There is hope, but
not hard proof yet, that calorie restriction will work in humans; even if it does,
the restricted diet requires rigorous discipline, and many practitioners report that
they feel hungry all the time. Many people would rather face an earlier death than
not be able to eat all their favorite foods on a regular basis! The message here is
that a long life or near-immortality is not likely to come easily or cheaply. Beware
those selling "miracles".
Death Memes and Hope for the Future
Despite the romanticization of death by various belief systems and goth teenagers
throughout the world, human beings as a whole fear the end of mortal existence and tirelessly
seek ways to prolong and improve the quality of life. This piece is not directed at those
individuals who are entirely comfortable with the concept of their own death, those
who see the end of life as a natural aspect of existence. Rather, I am speaking to those
like myself who, if given the choice, would eagerly accept bodily immortality. There is so
much to learn here, and so much to experience, that today's life expectancy of 70-something
years seems frighteningly inadequate. I live with a sense of urgency; not a day goes by
that I don't stop and think, "I am young now but someday I will be old, so I'd better make
the most of this!" Human culture and life is permeated with death; if you subscribe to
the idea of memes, it should be apparent that the eventual death meme is quite pervasive.
I wonder sometimes if death is, to some degree, a social issue: do we die simply because
we expect to? If we stopped perceiving death as inevitable, how would that change the
way we live?
I had something of a wake-up call about five years ago. I think it was prompted by the fact
that I realized I was growing up, that I was no longer a child. As a child, it seemed that I'd
be that way forever. And becoming an adult meant that one day I would certainly be elderly,
and even further down the line I may die. Death was, up until that point, something that
happened to peoples' great-grandparents. It finally hit me that all the great-grandparents
in the world had once been children, babies even! I had known this objectively for years
but I never really accepted it emotionally until I was about nineteen. And it scared me. I
began reading web sites about cryonics and caloric restriction. I even tried a weird
low-calorie diet for a while, but then realized I probably didn't really know what I was
doing. I still sometimes feel like a science-fiction crackpot; I have real hope that somehow
I will avoid the infirmities of old age and stave off death. Part of me wonders if attitude
has anything to do with lifespan; happier people DO tend to live longer and suffer fewer
illnesses. Conversely, stress and depression often manifest themselves as actual physical
symptoms of illness. This indicates to me that perhaps humans CAN acheive a modicum of
control over their physical well-being through maintaining a positive state of mind.
Part of this "positive state of mind", to me, includes NOT simply assuming I'm going
to die someday. Perhaps this is my own form of religion; indeed, I have no proof that
I will not die, and all of human history is against me! Yet many of the advancements
humans have achieved just in the past two centuries were previously thought to be
impossible (flight, space flight, artificial organs, and the mapping of the human genome,
to name a few). We have cured diseases that used to mean certain death. The infirmity that
comes with aging will perhaps someday be seen as simply another disease.